The Life of a Deputy Headteacher: Part 10

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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When does ‘the life of a deputy headteacher’ become untenable?

I am over 3 months late publishing this and the update reflects a period between February 2017 to July 2017. The last post I wrote was in January 2017 when life in school was good. What I hope to offer here is a snapshot into my Spring and Summer terms to help the reader compare, suggest or to use for their own reflection.

This is the 10th (and last) in the series of The Life of a Deputy Headteacher – it is just my story and is written as a ‘dear diary’.

February to April 2017:

Looking back over the past 6 months, I actually do not know where to start when writing this.

In terms of my remit, much of all the good teaching and learning and professional development work the school had been developing, has been put on a back-burner. This is a real shame, considering so many readers have demanded to use some of our resources – or at least were inspired by what was published in the two links shared above. The reason for slowing down many of our projects was due to the school being inspected in mid-January 2017. It was diabolical – a perceived stitch-up by many staff – despite our best, ever, examination results in the school’s history (for the past two years since the last inspection).

I will publish more details in September 2017, but I have alluded to these 21 Rhetorical Questions that I want to answer in the coming months. At present, my view remains steadfast: OfSTED does not contextualize inspection of schools and far too many challenging schools are being ‘put to the sword’ due to a binary methodology that is open to interpretation – which does not place schools on a level playing field. As for complaints? Well, you can complain about the process, but not the final decision. Hmm, is it any wonder people rarely view the watchdog as ‘supportive’ and ‘all ears’ for school improvement?

It is my belief that you can predict an OfSTED judgement based on the percentage of free school meals in your school. Try ours: 75% pupil premium, 95% English as an Additional Language. Is it any wonder OfSTED rely so heavily on data prior to a visit? Seeking out evidence to justify that idea that a school is/is not making progress is much easier to triangulate in one or two days … Worse, when the ‘Data Dashboard’ is used over the two days process with alternative provision students ‘designated as ours’ – which was simply not true – calculated into the overall progress measure, included.

Over the following months, we had a huge undertaking to demonstrate ‘capacity to improve’, and although we could accept much of what was reported, it was not a true reflection of our journey or what this school was and is today.

  1. The first major task was to ensure the school kept working and got through the bad patch. In the weeks and months that followed, staff absence rocketed, and our senior leadership team with a handful of days sick between them, each took a catalogue of days off sick. Some serious and long-term, others short one-off days, including me with an eye infection. The impact of the school inspection was obvious on staff morale, wellbeing and health.
  2. Action plans were generated and a new behaviour policy was introduced. All staff and students were trained and communication was shared with parents. Exclusions went through the roof, but the impact was immediate. Suddenly, all of our teachers found a new lease of life in the classroom and the challenge now was to ‘make it stick’. Four months later I am pleased to say the school is a different place and corridors and classrooms are full of polite conversations and respect for learning. All teachers teach freely and every classroom door is open – all day! Whether this is down to OfSTED, possibly … but, I can certainly say, it is down to the hard work of the same staff who were in the school when first inspected.
  3. In March, I worked on a post-inspection teaching and learning action plan. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve written one of these, but it was a necessary task despite it grating on the soul (for a follow-up inspection that will never happen)!
  4. Every middle and senior leader was re-equipped to observe lessons with more rigour, with paired observations and ‘progress over time’ becoming the focus rather than ‘one-off performance’ being tested across the school. Middle leaders reported that it was the best CPD they had ever received and I’d like to thank Pam Fearnley for that …
  5. As the behaviour policy embedded and with 2 senior leaders off on long-term sickness, my entire time outside of my classroom was spent being ‘on duty’. This continued across the school and in the new ‘referral room’ where students were sent for disruption in lessons and across the school grounds – think Michaela Community School reputation and you won’t be far off – but the policy was inspired by another school close by. From March and April, every morning we would often have to ‘step up’ and fill in for absent colleagues. This was simply due to the fact that there were 4-5 of us around the table most mornings, instead of 9, covering 12 periods of ‘on duty’ and referral room per day. For much of March through to July, I felt like a ‘sergeant major’ on duty across the school. I got nothing else done to make whole-school policy work …
  6. The inspection determined school life for the immediate future and despite being a single-status academy, pursing our own multi-academy partnership, the Department for Education announced their ‘preferred partners’ and the wheels in motion commenced. It was another kick in the teeth that lacked any transparency …
  7. Within a matter of days, the new trust members were on site, ‘farming out’ services to save costs, introducing their systems from September 2017. Each week, I waited to hear which school initiative I had first introduced, to be culled and replaced by something from central headquarters. It was demoralising to say the least and happened on a whole-school level. However, on the positive, the resources on offer were reassuring and many of the changes made ‘financial sense’. Yet, there was no escaping the fact that all of us thought, ‘incoming colleagues would believe’ us to be inadequate.

Staff absence continued to rise, with the most-reported illness and cover being requested in years.

Easter had never been such a relief as it was this year – I was exhausted.

I suspect many staff felt the same, but for the first time since I can remember, I stayed away from school – no revision classes or whole-school supervision for me. I hated the thought, despite knowing that students will be on-site revising and colleagues working hard, I needed to rest. Examinations will come and go and schools will always need to improve …

May to July 2017:

On return to school, we were still two members of SLT down and it took a number of weeks to add capacity. We eventually put in place 3 interim senior teachers to help out with key areas of school improvement. They were a welcomed addition and offered much-needed encouragement and perspective.

  1. In May, revision and examinations carried on as normal and the school felt good. Year 11 students were more focused than those in the preceding 4 year groups (I had witnessed) and behaviour was excellent. I suspect for the 3rd year in a row, we may just achieve the best results in our history. Wouldn’t that be something?
  2. Professional development continued with focus around behaviour and teaching and learning – all staff really stepped up. Classrooms continued to be a place for learning and despite what any inspector said, the school had improved.
  3. June saw an increased level of monitoring in all aspects of school life – simply because of what being ‘put in a category’ does to your school priorities. The ‘fluffy stuff’ as I call it – leading an extended leadership team, playing staff football, promoting staff wellbeing, coaching colleagues and organising extra events to promote the work you are doing e.g. TeachMeet, all fell by the way. It was vital to work using evidence rather than knee-jerk anecdotes …
  4. To put staff morale to bed, a pupil premium review was conducted by the incoming MAT to gauge how far the school have moved on from our OfSTED inspection – despite the report being delayed for 45 days – leaving us with just 2 months to put recommendations into action. Improvement was clearly not swift enough, and the one-day visit from our new prospective employers felt simply like another monitoring exercise, rather than something to support the staff working to improve outcomes.
  5. In the final few weeks of term, almost all of our school work was centred around ‘being ready’ for September 2017. There was very little to celebrate, but the staff and students continued on and ‘held the line’ with what work we had tweaked and transformed in such a short space of time. Being in the nearby community, I lead a number of assemblies on the Grenfell Tower disaster and watched in pride as students celebrated at the end of term.
  6. I suspect anyone new to the school would not be able to correlate between ‘what was written in the inspection report’ to what was ‘evident in the classroom and playground’. Sadly, only the examination outcomes will speak for itself, not the hundreds of working days lost to staff mental health and the hundreds of exclusions required to force the students and staff to be more compliant.
  7. As soon as the school gates closed for the summer, I watched as our brilliant site team took down everything that existed about the school – signage, posters, logos. It may take longer for the online history to disappear, but what will remain, is not the new name, colour or people who will be starting working in the school from September, but the pride of staff and students who worked tirelessly throughout what has been, probably the most difficult time in education the school has ever known.

However hard we work, however many sacrifices we make in terms of personal health and family life, choose to work in a deprived school and the deck is always going to be stacked against you. OfSTED inspectors must be held to account for their decisions – even better if they come back and not only gauge progress made, but actually work with the school to act on feedback they provide!

Is it any wonder 1.4% of all schools report (page 47) a head teacher vacancy? The last 6 months have certainly put me off …

Supporting School Leaders

When I started out as a senior leader 10 years ago, I felt isolated and is one reason I kickstarted @SLTchat in 2012.

It is vital that we share our work with each other to encourage and strengthen the important work of school leaders everywhere – it also helps generate good ideas, build networks and expose guff. If you’ve had a tough year in school leadership, you are not alone. Join the 25,000 others who are sharing and supporting one another by following #SLTchat every Sunday night during term time.

Over and out, at least for now …

10 thoughts on “The Life of a Deputy Headteacher: Part 10

  1. The dashboard puts you in the middle band of all schools. You did well in English, maths and the ebacc bucket. It seems outrageous. There are schools out there with worse results getting Goods.

  2. You are not alone. Similar situation for us: economically deprived area + recent upsurge in drugs gangs trying to recruit school-age children in community and an upsurge in knife crime locally made things tough just as we were inspected. Subsequently everything is about response to report. Impact on staff wellbeing and work/life balance has been horrendous. Also problems around finance dating from founding of academy. Nobody held to account but students, teachers & school leaders have to live with with consequences. I share your concerns that new GCSE criteria effectively caps achievement and therefore progress, making it harder for disadvantaged students to succeed. Hang on in there!

    1. Hi Roger – this appears far to common from all the messages I am receiving. My view is ‘why work in a deprived school if it puts your career and wellbeing at risk?’ Sad state of affairs …

  3. What is demoralising is the way any account of the context of a disadvantaged school is seen as an excuse rather than a reason for outcomes….

    1. Not making excuses here – sharing the story of the hard work put in by 200 colleagues over the past 3 years. Not many teachers choose to work in a challenging school, so we should be looking for ‘supportive reasons to help’ challenging schools get better, rather than make excuses for why they appear to be failing under the current regime.

  4. Reading this completely mirrors my experience as an Assistant Head a few months earlier. However the school I was in had a very different context. The behaviour of the Academy chain who came in made me reassess what’s important in life. Working for them certainly wasn’t going to be good for my health and wellbeing. Consequently we relocated as a family and I am back in the classroom. The best and only decision I could make at the time.

  5. This account is mirrored across many schools, including the one which I have now subsequently left as a senior leader. Unfortunately, I come from a system where OFSTED does not exist. I must question the validity of OFSTED and why is England the only country in the world to have a policing body that holds schools to account over a 1, 2, or 3 day inspection? this accompanied with a change of trusts in the academy that I worked in has led me to move back to Australia to continue my leadership Korea. I have been reinvigorated back in Australia as teaching is holistic and leadership is driven through success of a school and it’s students achieving the best for their students and not just data. Of course I am not attempting to sell all teachers coming over to Australia to teach in a system that is much more supportive and able to provide opportunities in different ways, but instead of my condolences to people who are suffering due to pressures that are not required on schools so as students can thrive in education and become lifelong learners. Thank you so very much for your account of what has happened and it certainly is a all too familiar story.

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